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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Bard!

Richard Watts

Just as Shakespeare fused history with popular myths and legends, a new theatre production is mashing up Henry V with superheroes.
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s the Bard!

Superhal's The Dauphin: every superhero needs a super-villain to oppose. 

In Shakespeare’s era, commoners and nobility alike were fascinated by stories of gods, demigods, ghosts and fairies. Today our shared myths spring from the pages of comic books and superheroes such as Batman and Captain America are major office drawcards. So why not combine the two?

The Puzzle Collective’s Superhal does precisely that, fusing characters and stories from Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V with the imagery and archetypes of superhero movies.

‘If Shakespeare thought his work had become elitist he’d be rolling in his grave,’ said John Galea, the director of Superhal. ‘What we’re doing is what he was doing – he was taking the myths and legends which had come down to him and contemporising them for his audiences, and we’re doing the same thing. We’re taking classical literature … and putting it into something familiar, the superhero universe.’

It’s not the first time Shakespeare’s plays – themselves mash-ups of Greek, Roman, Danish and English myths and histories – have inspired fantastic adaptations: the 1956 film Forbidden Planet turned The Tempest into space opera, for instance.

By adding contemporary vitality to the classics, Shakespeare’s plays become accessible for audiences to whom they might otherwise be seen as elitist and inaccessible.

‘The idea is that it will enrich both genres, so people who are Shakespeare lovers can find something about pop culture, a depth to it, that they maybe hadn’t thought about before. And those who come from the pop culture side will see that it’s not obscure and elitist, it’s something they can relate to,’ said Galea.

Superhal is set in an alternative England ruled by superhuman beings, where the young Prince Hal has rebelled against his father, the King. Spurning the knights and noblemen of the royal court, Hal befriends drunkards, pimps and thieves. But when civil war threatens and responsibility looms, Hal draws on hidden reserves to become first a soldier, and then a king. But at what cost to himself and his friends?

Actor John Michael Burdon, who plays the familiar role of Prince Hal’s comic offsider Falstaff in Superhal said the production is very much in keeping with Shakespeare’s own populist streak.

‘Shakespeare used his writings to really entertain the popular crowd – the public, the general public, which is what we’re trying to do with Superhal. With my character, he’s a comic, a clown, and that’s what his purpose was – to entertain the public with that sort of bawdy humour,’ Burdon said.

Unlike contemporary superhero movies, which are largely reliant on computer-generated effects to wow their audience, Superhal has the added bonus of practical stage effects to keep theatre-goers entertained.

‘We’re using a combination of technology and old stage effects … there’s prop work and costume work that is very technologically based, we’ve got special effects … but we’re also taking on board those old stage techniques of smoke and mirrors and combining the two,’ Burdon said.

On top of which there’s the enduring magic of Shakespeare’s texts to ensure audiences are enthralled, explained Galea.

‘We haven’t changed any of the language – we’ve cut a lot out though. We’ve taken three plays and cut them down to one ... but we haven’t added anything. I don’t feel like any of us are capable of writing extra Shakespeare – his genius level is a bit too high!’

The Puzzle Collective’s Superhal
NIDA Parade Theatre, Kensington NSW
7-18 March 2017

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts